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Independent Play: The best toys and materials for play

[This is the first chapter in this series on Independent Play. You can read the prelude to this series on why it is so important for children to have independent play]


Whenever we visit the toy store or the toy section at the shops, the choice of toys, play equipment and educational tools can really be overwhelming. These days, there is such a wide array of toys and gadgets for kids that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Many of the toys out there are often positioned as educational and beneficial to children’s learning. Of course such toys are fun to play with, but the truth is, as sophisticated as they look, the numerous features they possess can often be quite one-dimensional.

Sure, all those buttons and lights on those toys look like a lot of fun to play with. However buttons can do only do what buttons do --be pushed and pressed. When you strip everything down, such toys actually leave very little to the imagination. After a child has pushed, prodded and pressed every single button on that toy, what else is there to do with it?

Instead, we should try and offer children open ended toys and materials to play with.

The best toys are plain, simple, and don’t do much on their own. Often they may not necessarily even need to be ‘actual’ toys. Everyday objects like bowls, cups, pots, pans, boxes can be toys --for stacking, nesting, banging and even imaginary play like pretend cooking.

Here are my personal top five favourite toys and materials for open ended play:

[Also remember to check out the sister post to this topic on two very important tips on how to let kids play]


#1. Blocks
From plain old classic square blocks to wooden blocks, waffle blocks, Mega blocks, Lego or Duplo blocks… any kind of blocks really. You can even find magnetic ones that stick together--there are just so many variations available out there these days. Though I would advise against veering too far away from the basics and certainly try to minimise those pre-designed model sets with a picture of what you supposedly should be constructing.

My own personal two favourite types of building blocks are the classic wooden blocks and Lego/Duplo blocks.

Clockwise from top left: a robot, house furniture, Lego soup and a fireman rescue scene

And don’t stereotype blocks as being for just boys. There’s more to blocks than just constructing buildings or towers. All the images of the creations above were completely initiated by my little boy (aged 2-3 years old). I was even treated to sample a taste of Lego soup!

I noticed that the babies (up to 12 months old) seem to especially enjoy the feel of wooden blocks --they love holding them, knocking them together, putting them into containers etc. Young toddlers (12-18 months old) start learning how to stack blocks and balance them on top of each other. They also can begin to observe and learn how to snap Lego blocks together (though they may not be able to it very well yet).


#2. Play dough
This is truly one of the most economical ‘toys’ to play with because you can actually make it yourself! Just four basic ingredients: flour, salt, cream of tartar and oil. You can add food colouring and even essential oils for different colours and scents. There are literally hundreds of play dough recipes on the internet. This particular recipe happens to be my favourite one.


You can of course buy the tubs of commercial play dough, and you don’t need to get the expensive pre-designed kits that come with special themes. Instead, just throw in anything from around the house and see what the kids come up with --popsicle sticks, pasta, beans, old cookie cutters, safety scissors, small toys, matchbox cars, Lego blocks, and bits and pieces from your craft box.


And the kids don’t always necessarily have to ‘make’ something with the play dough. Some are just happy squishing it, cutting it, pinching it or making imprints with the toys and materials on hand.

Play dough may not be appropriate for very young babies to play with as they may try to mouth or taste it. But you can keep a close eye on them and let them have a feel and touch of the dough. And if you make the play dough yourself, you know all the ingredients used and can be certain that there are no chemicals or weird additives in it.

When you are ready, you can even advanced to other forms of play dough (I did mention that there are literally hundreds of recipes out there)… like cloud dough, silky dough, ice-cream dough and even oobleck.


#3. Water
There is just something very soothing about water that kids just love. You don’t even have to own a pool to be able to enjoy some water play. Just plunk down a tub or bucket of water with some containers and it can keep children completely occupied for ages.

There are many ways to vary water play… just throw in a few other toys or little figurines to fuel some imaginary play. You can even add a few drops of food colouring in to boost the wow factor or turn it into a learning opportunity to experiment with colour mixing and measuring.

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With a couple of paintbrushes, take the action outside for a session of water painting. And I also gave Nathan one of those plastic syringes for our own makeshift water gun play.

Even babies can get in on the action --just ensure that you are always nearby to keep a close eye. And even with older children, always keep the water play area in sight for supervision.



#4. Sand
We have the benefit of having our own sandpit in our backyard and I can honestly say it has been one of the best investments for the children’s play. Like water, there is something very calming and therapeutic about sand. It is also a very versatile play material for children.

When I was setting up my house and yard for my family day care, one of the essential things I was told to set up in my outdoor area was a sandpit. Even if I don’t get anything else, I had to get a sandpit.

“Just a sandpit? What about a slide or swing set?”  I remember asking the officer in surprise.

Her reply: “Yes a slide or swing set would be nice too, but what can children do with those? Slide and swing --that’s it. With sand, they can pour it, shape it, build with it, you can incorporate science into the play or sensory activities”.

The kids have all benefited from hours of play therapy here. I sometimes throw in a few toys and figurines to spur some imaginary play. I also like to add some water into the play which really ups the engagement level.


And don’t leave baby out either. As long as you are close by to supervise, I don’t think there’s much real danger in the situation. Just a very sandy baby and lots of sand between their tiny toes and crevices to clean up after.

You don’t necessarily even need to have a sandpit or sandbox for sand play. Even a tub filled with sand can do the trick (you can pick up a 5kg bag for around $7.00 from Bunnings). I also quite liked this idea of converting an old bookshelf into a small sandbox.

If for some reason, sand is not an option for your situation, you can actually try making your own moon sand with just two everyday ingredients from around the house.


#5. Cardboard boxes
This is also a highly economical ‘toy’ for open ended play. And there’s no shortage of supply of these, you can pick some up at hardware stores like Bunnings or ask your local store if they have any used boxes to spare. It’s good to have a few different sizes and shapes and some really large ones which kids can climb into.

Some of the ways the kids have played with cardboard boxes include: converting them into an imaginary train, bus or truck, using them as a wheelbarrow, a ramp for rolling their cars and trucks, and stacking and arranging them into a play ‘house’ or ‘shop’.

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Cardboard boxes also make great caves and tunnels to crawl into, and babies can also get in on the fun crawling through the tunnel. You can put in some toys and objects inside for them to explore as a sensory experience.



After stocking up on all these fantastic toys and materials for your kids, it’s not enough to just stop here. There are also two very important things to keep in mind to allow open ended and imaginative play to happen:

Firstly, hold back from ‘showing’ children how to use or play with the material or toy

Secondly, accept the mess that can happen during play and find ways to work around it

>> Read more on tips on how to allow open ended play

And check back again next Tuesday for the next topic in this series where I’ll talk about ‘How to be your child’s storyteller’ and share some pointers on what to say (or not to say) to your child during play.

Click here for the full series on Independent Play

Linking up to Jess for IBOT


  1. It just goes to show, you don't need to spend a fortune to make sure your kids have wonderful, educational and memorable play experiences! My kids (now 20 & 17) still remember when I used to give them a bucket of water and they would "paint" our timber fence :-)

    Visiting today from #teamIBOT xxx

  2. The mess issue is a big one for me (I hate play dough!) Cardboard boxes are the bomb though. Having just moved, our boys have had lots of fun making towers and cubby's. Love the water painting idea as well. (Nee Say)

  3. Wow I dare not show my kids these photos or they'll be asking me to come and play over at your place! Great ideas :)

  4. Oh these are great tips! We do all these at home, and I totally agree with you - they are great. I just love seeing what Lior comes up with. Sometimes our duplo makes trains, other days towers, and when Daddy is home the towers almost touch the roof, so that's a bit exciting too!

  5. Oh Serene what a perfect collection of "toys" I just love it. It is all about nurturing their very own imaginations. Gorgeous photos too.


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